Tuesday, 3 December 2013


We human beings love to categorize. It is part of how we make sense of the world and our place within it. But in recent weeks, and in as I dwell on the Christmas story this Advent, I have been thinking more and more about connections not categories.

At college I am currently studying Sociology of Religion. There the world is placed firmly into the category of the social. The behaviour and beliefs of religions are assessed on the basis of their social role. Of course there is much to be gained from this approach but it often places the individual into the social system as an unautonomous being who is simply moulded and changed by the social world around them. The connections between sociology, psychology, biology and belief are severed and this produces a flatter view of the world than it really is.

On Guardian Science today research was presented on the 'wiring' of male and female brains. The article presented sex differences as if they were a fait accompli. We are born with these wirings, that determines what it is to be a man or a woman and we just have to get on with it. The reality is, of course, much more complicated than this. Our genes limit what we can become but the expression of those genes, the development of our biology – even the functioning of our brains, is also determined by our environment. We create men and women on the basis of our cultural norms. We are not just biological, or social, or psychological, we are connections.

Our behaviour is full of connections. We are like walking self fulfilling prophecies. Psychological research shows that if you believe you will have a bad day, your behaviour shifts, you attract fewer positive responses from others (because we are, of course, social animals as well as individuals) and your perception of 'having a bad day' is reinforced. So much of our daily experience is shaped by our assumptions about it. Our behaviour is full of connections.

And in our typical way of categorizing we have done this no more so than in ideas about the 'spiritual'. We have sacred and we have secular. This is a very 'Western' thing. In many cultures there is no such divide. The spiritual is not the thing that goes boo in the night or which gives you a warm glowy feeling it, it is the wind blowing through your hair and a bird perched on a tree branch. That we separate the world so categorically breaks us off from so much of the reality of God and from the depth of our own lives. If God is only to be found in the 'spiritual' then will I miss him when a baby clutches my finger or when my Mum gives me a hug? Will I seek God out in the 'spiritual things I do' rather than in the way I have a conversation with my family over dinner?

The wonder of the Christmas story for me is that it smashes open these box and lays bare all the connections. God in a tiny baby. Divinity in the dust. Nothing about our humanity, our every day here and now, is untouchable. It is validated and made whole. Our assumptions are turned upside down, our categories broken down. It tells us to open our eyes wider, to see our every day as sacred. To stand whole and to celebrate those connections.

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